Tuesday, November 24, 2009

'A Death in the Desert'

by Cathy Scott 

The Las Vegas homicide investigation into casino heir Ted Binion's death culminated in not just one trial, but two. The case, which attracted a media herd, became known as Las Vegas's biggest trial, surpassing even the storied mob trials from the 1980s. 

The case has also been called a "murder mystery." But Binion's death was hardly a mystery -- a point hammered home in a documentary recently aired on Investigation Discovery Channel's "On the case with Paula Zahn." In "A Death in the Desert," Zahn carefully laid out the discrepancies in the case. 

Binion died sometime in the late morning hours of Sept.17, 1998. It was no secret he'd struggled with drugs for years. The day before his death, Binion bought tar heroin from his drug dealer. His next-door neighbor, a physician, filled a Xanax prescription for him. So Binion's stately home wasn't treated as a crime scene after his body was discovered. The casual police behavior, compounded by people walking in and out removing valuables such as expensive fine art and silver coins, would come back to haunt the prosecution team: There was no smoking gun, and police gathered no hard evidence from the scene.

But in the days following Binion's death, Sandy Murphy, his live-in girlfriend of three years, became a suspect, as did Rick Tabish. Tabish, Binion's friend, would eventually be linked romantically with Sandy. 

Spurred largely by Binion's baby sister, Becky Behnen, the district attorney indicted Murphy and Tabish in Binion's death. Becky had a bitter falling out with her brother before his death. The two hadn't spoken in months, and they were rumored to have taken out contracts on each other's lives. The rumors never substantiated, but to put it mildly, Ted and Becky didn't like each other. 

Many things struck me as odd while I covered the case as a journalist. For one, Las Vegas police allowed private detective Tom Dillard to take over and lead the police investigation. Granted, he was a retired homicide detective from the Las Vegas police department. Still, it was unprecedented. 

Add to that the fact that Dillard was paid a whopping $400,000 by Binion's estate to investigate the case, a point confirmed by Murphy's defense attorney Michael Cristalli in the documentary. Despite the odd involvement of the highly paid outside investigator, the case moved forward through the judicial system. I was fascinated by red flags in the case; I started writing a book about it while covering it for Reuters news service and the now-defunct APBNews.com. It had the makings of a made-for-TV movie (which, ultimately, it became).

The Binion family had a Wild West reputation, starting with Ted's father, Benny, (left) who once served prison time for killing a man in Texas. The younger Binion was also known for wild behavior. He also was accused of killing a man, but, unlike his father, he was never charged. So it came as no surprise when the media covered Ted Binion's death intensely. Court TV aired the first trial gavel-to-gavel. National and international TV and print reporters, along with a courtroom artist, filled the courtroom each day.

At the end of that trial, in 2000, Murphy and Tabish were each convicted of murder and of burglarizing Binion's underground vault to unearth his buried silver, which was worth millions (the Binions were known for burying their fortunes on family owned property). 

Murphy and Tabish appealed their convictions and, on a technicality, were granted a new trial by the Nevada Supreme Court. Once again, they were tried together. It was during the second trial, with Tabish represented by radical civil rights attorney J. Tony Serra, that the prosecution's case against the pair unraveled. 

During the first trial, circumstantial evidence presented by star expert witness Michael Baden all but sealed Murphy and Tabish's fate--that is, until Serra came along for the second trial. Serra questioned Baden at length about a so-called button mark left on Binion's chest. Baden testified during the first trial that the mark was made by someone sitting on Binion, compressing his chest, while simultaneously holding a hand over Binion's nose and mouth to suffocate him. In May 2000, Murphy and Tabish were each convicted of murder and of burglary of Binion's buried silver cache. Jurors interviewed afterward said Baden's testimony swayed them toward guilty verdicts.

During the second trial, however, attorneys Serra and Cristalli used enlarged photos to prove that the button mark on Binion's chest was actually a blister. In November 2004, the jury returned not-guilty verdicts on the murder charges but let stand the burglary convictions.
Today, Sandy Murphy lives in Southern California. After the second trial, she was granted time served for the burglary charge and released. Rick Tabish remains in a Nevada prison and is expected to be released sometime in 2010. Sandy continues, through the court system, to clear her name in the burglary case.

As I said during my interview with the Investigation Discovery Channel, I'm certain there was no murder, that Ted Binion instead died from a self-induced drug overdose. It was, as Tony Serra observed, "casino royalty" and the "Binion money machine" who convicted the pair.

The second edition of my book, Death in the Desert: The Ted Binion Homicide Case, will be released in the spring of 2010. 

Photos of the Binions courtesy of the Binion Collection.


FleaStiff said...

I've always had several reservation about that case. I see nothing wrong with making use of retired talent as long as they do not have any ethical conflicts. However, the issue of the drug death always bothers me. The guy was an experienced drug user. He was no neophyte who didn't know hot to do it. And this guff about suddenly strong heroin is utter lunacy. It always has been. Most heroin overdose deaths are NOT due to an overdose. In a hospital setting if a patient is given an overdose he simply nods off to sleep and wakes up thirsty. It takes a really king size bolus to kill with heroin. Reactions to minute impurities and contaminants is more likely.
There were financial motives and there was the usual police bungling at the beginning of the case. That is a more deadly combination than heroin and xanax.

FleaStiff said...

As one indication of the heroin death, can you run a statistical analysis of such deaths for that period of time and see if other people also died of heroin overdoses? Most heroin supply systems have common suppliers and share strengths in common too. It would seem strange for just one guy to suddenly croak from heroin use that day.

Paralegal Sandy said...

Wow Cathy, it will be interesting to see the other side of the coin. I read the book that believes they were guilty, some years ago. Well I assume it believed they were guilty. I'll be anxiou to get your book to see your spin on the whole thing.

equinox said...

no way was this not murder.

Leah said...

Can't wait to read the book as well. Never read one about this case but did see at least one TV program about it...think it was on A&E and it painted the 2 in a guilty light.

Leah said...

In fact the program I saw must have been way old because they had only 1 trial and I didn't even know they were out of jail. That said, you'd think they would have to update shows like this.